Margaret Edson is the soul of Wit
by Carolyn Clay
Margaret Edson won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for a play she had written eight
years earlier while working in a bike shop. Today she teaches kindergarten in
Atlanta and doesn't care whether she ever writes another play. "The things I
want to say right now I'm saying in my classroom. And the great, joyful feeling
of creativity I get in my class 100 times a day. So I don't feel that there's
some part of me that's blocked off and I need to come home and write some dour,
In 1991, however, the Smith grad and erstwhile hot-dog salesperson,
hog-farmer's-bar waitress, Roman-convent painter, and physical-therapy aide did
feel a need to write the play that became Wit, went on to win more
awards than Secretariat, and this week begins its national tour at Boston's
Wilbur Theatre. So, being the straightforward sort of person who answers her
phone, "This is Maggie," and would rather teach five-year-olds to read than
read her own reviews, she just did it. "I wasn't planning it as the beginning
of a career as a writer, and I wasn't using it to establish myself in any way.
I just wanted to write this play at that time."
The journey of PhD Vivian Bearing -- a Paper Chase-worthy professor
specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne -- through the crucible of
ovarian cancer, the play sprang in part from Edson's experience as a unit clerk
on the cancer and AIDS inpatient unit of a major research hospital. But, she
explains, "it could have taken place somewhere besides a hospital and still
have been about the same things. It's about love and knowledge and a person who
tries to get the mix right and has to adjust as circumstances change in her
life. So it's about somebody struggling to fit a certain kind of intelligence
and a certain kind of love into her life at the same time."
Anyone who has seen Wit will not immediately think of Dr. Bearing as
trying to do anything so fuzzy. At the beginning of her ordeal, when the
tough-nut scholar pushes her IV pole toward the audience and notes ironically
of her odyssey that "The Faerie Queen this is not," she seems much less
a creature of love than of knowledge. "Yeah, except that she loves knowledge,"
replies the quick-trigger Edson. "How's that? There are things about what she
does and about herself doing them that she really loves and really values and
works very hard to cultivate and develop and promote. And there are other
things that she steps right over. And as the play progresses, she has to
reverse those things."
Although Edson says she "knew the general shape of research protocol in a
hospital from my work in one," she was no expert on the complex metaphysical
sonnets that spark Dr. Bearing's scholarly fire. "I didn't know anything about
them at all, except that they were hard and that they were clever, about
subjects that maybe don't reward that kind of inquiry." To find her way into
the poems from which Wit borrows both its struggle with Death and its
title component, Edson undertook "a very serious, patient, methodical study of
Donne, just starting with general works and working my way down and following
the footnotes and looking up citations, anything you would do studying anything
in an academic way." Of course, that was during her off-hours; by day she sold
bikes. "I came up with a great idea that didn't really come to fruition," she
recalls, "which was the bike-shop wedding registry. That seems to me the next
frontier in mellow merchandising."
And did she hope to see her work produced, much less win the Pulitzer Prize?
"Well, in my mind it was produced. I imagined it up on stage as I was working
on it and how it would be sitting in the audience. But there was no reason in
the world to expect that that would happen because I didn't have any
credentials or any connections or experience, even. So there was no reason to
expect that anybody would produce it. And it was rejected by every theater I
sent it to except one."
Edson explains that she simply got a list of regionals and sent the play
around. "I was very systematic about it. It was like running Girl Scout Cookie
sales." Eventually California's South Coast Rep bought the Thin Mints; the play
was produced there in 1995. The theater even commissioned a second work,
Edson's only other play. "I wrote about a country gospel singer from the '30s
through the '50s, a real person named Martha Carson. She had one hit in '52 or
'53 called `Satisfied.' So it's a play with music called Satisfied. But
nobody likes it, so I call it Dissatisfied."
Perhaps Edson should have quit while she was ahead. Critical and audience
response to Wit (and especially to the award-winning
Long-Wharf-Theatre-to-Off-Broadway production directed by Edson's high-school
chum, Derek Anson Jones, who died January 17 at age 38) has been remarkably
positive, especially when you consider the play's heady, frightening subjects.
Has that surprised Edson? "Oh yeah. I understood the rejection much better."
But, she maintains, Wit isn't really a play about cancer or cancer
treatment or dying. "It's a play about redemption. And if people get that, I'm
very gratified. And I thank them for suffering through it to get to that point.
There are a lot easier ways to spend an evening."
That said, Edson admits to being in the thrall of her own play. "Part of me,"
she says of her experience as a Wit spectator, "is watching it
analytically from a distance. But then I just get caught up in it every time. I
feel like it happens to me every time." Is she proud of the work? "Yeah." And
will she be on hand to see it launch its national tour in Boston? "No, no,
because I got my day job."
Wit is at the Wilbur Theatre February 1 through 20. Tickets are $26 to
$62.50. Call 931-2787.